William was frankly bored. School always bored him. He disliked facts, and he disliked being tied down to detail, and he disliked answering questions. As a politician a great future would have lain before him. William attended a mixed school because his parents hoped that feminine influence might have a mellowing effect upon his character. As yet the mellowing was not apparent. He was roused from his day-dreams by a change in the voice of Miss Dewhurst, his form mistress. It was evident that she was not talking about the exports of England (a subject in which William took little interest) any longer.
"Children," she said brightly. "I want to have a little May Queen for the first of May. The rest of you must be her courtiers. I want you all to vote to-morrow. Put down on a piece of paper the name of the little girl you think would make the sweetest little Queen, and the rest of you shall be her swains and maidens."
"We're goin' to have a May Queen," remarked William to his family at dinner, "an' I'm goin' to be a swain."
His interest died down considerably when he discovered the meaning of the word swain.
"Isn't it no sort of animal at all?" he asked indignantly.
"Well, I'm not going to be in it, then," he said when he heard that it was not.
The next morning Evangeline Fish began to canvass for votes methodically. Evangeline Fish was very fair, and was dressed always in that shade of blue that shrieks aloud to the heavens and puts the skies to shame. She was considered the beauty of the form.
"I'll give you two bull's eyes if you'll vote for me," she said to William.
"Two!" said William with scorn.
"Six," she bargained.
"All right," he said, "you can give me six bull's eyes if you want. There's nothing to stop you givin' me six bull's eyes if you want, is there? Not that I know of."
"But you'll have to promise to put down my name on the paper if I give you six bull's eyes," she said suspiciously.
"All right," said William. "I can easy promise that."
Whereupon she handed over the six bull's eyes. William returned one as being under regulation size, and waited frowning till she replaced it by a larger one.
"Now, you've promised," said Evangeline Fish. "They'll make you ill an' die if you break your promise on them."
William kept his promise with true political address. He wrote "E. Fish—I don't think!" on his voting paper and his vote was disqualified. But Evangeline Fish was elected May Queen by an overwhelming majority. She was, after all, the beauty of the form and she always wore blue. And now she was to be May Queen. Her prestige was established for ever. "Little angel," murmured the elder girls. The small boys fought for her favours. William began to dislike her intensely. Her voice, and her smile, and her ringlets, and her blue dress began to jar upon his nerves. And when anything began to jar on William's nerves something always happened.
It was not till about a week later that he noticed Bettine Franklin. Bettine was small and dark. There was nothing "angelic" about her. William had noticed her vaguely in school before and had hardly looked upon her as a distinct personality. But one recreation in the playground he stood leaning against the wall by himself, scowling at Evangeline Fish. She was surrounded by a crowd of admirers, and was prattling to them artlessly in her angelic voice.
"I'm going to be dressed in white muslin with a blue sash. Blue suits me, you know. I'm so fair." She tossed back a ringlet. "One of you will have to hold my train and the rest must dance round me. I'm going to have a crown and—" She turned round in order to avoid the scowling gaze of William in the distance. William had discovered that his scowl annoyed her, and since then had given it little rest. But there was no satisfaction in scowling at the back of her well-curled head, so he relaxed his scowl and let his gaze wander round the playground. And it fell upon Bettine. Bettine was also standing by herself and gazing at Evangeline Fish. But she was not scowling. She was looking at Evangeline Fish with wistful envy. For Evangeline Fish was "angelic" and a May Queen, and she was neither of these things. William strolled over and lolled against the wall next to her.
"'Ullo!" he said, without looking at her, for this change of position had brought him again within range of Evangeline Fish's eye, and he was once more simply one concentrated scowl.
"'Ullo," murmured Bettine shyly and politely.
"You like pink rock?" was William's next effort.
"Um," said Bettine, nodding emphatically.
"I'll give you some next time I buy some," said William munificently, "but I shan't be buying any for a long time," he added bitterly, "'cause an ole ball slipped out my hands on to our dining-room window before I noticed it yesterday."
She nodded understandingly.
"I don't mind!" she said sweetly. "I'll like you jus' as much if you don't ever give me any rock."
"I di'n't know you liked me," he said.
"I do," she said fervently. "I like your face an' I like the things you say."
William had forgotten to scowl. He was one flaming mixture of embarrassment and delight. He plunged his hands into his pockets and brought out two marbles, a piece of clay, and a broken toy gun.
"You can have 'em all," he said in reckless generosity.
"You keep 'em for me," said Bettine sweetly.
"I hope you dance next me at the Maypole when Evangeline's Queen. Won't it be lovely?" and she sighed.
"Lovely?" exploded William. "Huh!"
"Won't you like it?" said Bettine wonderingly.
"Me!" exploded William again. "Dancin' round a pole! Round that ole girl?"
"But she's so pretty."
"No, she isn't," said William firmly, "she jus' isn't. Not much! I don' like her narsy shiny hair an' I don' like her narsy blue clothes, an' I don' like her narsy face, an' I don' like her narsy white shoes, nor her narsy necklaces, nor her narsy squeaky voice——"
Bettine drew a deep breath.
"Go on some more," she said. "I like listening to you."
"Do you like her?" said William.
"No. She's awful greedy. Did you know she was awful greedy?"
"I can b'lieve it," said William. "I can b'lieve anything of anyone wot talks in that squeaky voice."
"Jus' watch her when she's eatin' cakes—she goes on eatin' and eatin' and eatin'."
"She'll bust an' die one day then," prophesied William solemnly, "an' I shan't be sorry."
"But she'll look ever so beautiful when she's a May Queen."
"You'd look nicer," said William.
Bettine's small pale face flamed.
"Oh no," she said.
"Would you like to be a May Queen?"
"Oh, yes," she said.
"Um," said William, and returned to the discomfiture of Evangeline Fish by his steady concentrated scowl.
The next day he had the opportunity of watching her eating cakes. They met at the birthday party of a mutual classmate, and Evangeline Fish took her stand by the table and consumed cakes with a perseverance and determination worthy of a nobler cause. William accorded her a certain grudging admiration. Not once did she falter or faint. Iced cakes, cream cakes, pastries melted away before her and never did she lose her ethereal angelic appearance. Tight golden ringlets, blue eyes, faintly flushed cheeks, vivid pale blue dress remained immaculate and unruffled, and still she ate cakes. William watched her in amazement, forgetting even to scowl at her. Her capacity for cakes exceeded even William's, and his was no mean one.
They had a rehearsal of the Maypole dance and crowning the next day.
I want William Brown to hold the queen's train," said Miss Dewhurst.
"Me?" ejaculated William in horror. "D'you mean me?"
"Yes, dear. It's a great honour to be asked to hold little Queen Evangeline's train. I'm sure you feel very proud. You must be her little courtier."
"Huh!" said William, transferring his scowl to Miss Dewhurst.
Evangeline beamed. She wanted William's admiration. William was the only boy in the form who was not her slave. She smiled at William sweetly.
"I'm not good at holdin' trains," said William. "I don't like holdin' trains. I've never bin taught 'bout holdin' trains. I might do it wrong on the day an' spoil it all. I shan't like to spoil it all," he added virtuously.
"Oh, we'll have heaps of practices," said Miss Dewhurst brightly.
As he was going Bettine pressed a small apple into his hand.
"A present for you," she murmured. "I saved it from my dinner."
He was touched.
"I'll give you somethin' to-morrow," he said, adding hastily, "if I can find anythin'."
They stood in silence till he had finished his apple.
"I've left a lot on the core," he said in a tone of unusual politeness, handing it to her, "would you like to finish it?"
"No, thank you. William, you'll look so nice holding her train."
"I don't want to, an' I bet I won't! You don't know the things I can do," he said darkly.
"Oh, William!" she gasped in awe and admiration.
"I'd hold your train if you was goin' to be queen," he volunteered.
"I wouldn't want you to hold my train," she said earnestly. "I'd—I'd—I'd want you to be May King with me."
"Yes. Why don't they have May Kings?" said William, stung by this insult to his sex.
"Why shouldn't there be a May King?"
"I speck they do, really, only p'raps Miss Dewhurst doesn't know abut it."
"Well, it doesn't seem sense not having May Kings, does it? I wun't mind bein' May King if you was May Queen."
The rehearsal was, on the whole, a failure.
"William Brown, don't hold the train so high. No, not quite so low. Don't stand so near the Queen, William Brown. No, not so far away—you'll pull the train off. Walk when the Queen walks, William Brown, don't stand still. Sing up, please, train bearer. No, not quite so loud. That's deafening and not melodious."
In the end he was degraded from the position of train-bearer to that of ordinary "swain." The "swains" were to be dressed in smocks and the "maidens" in print dresses, and the Maypole dance was to be performed round Evangeline Fish, who was to stand in queenly attire by the pole in the middle. All the village was to be invited.
At the end of the rehearsal William came upon Bettine, once more gazing wistfully at Evangeline Fish, who was coquetting (with many tosses of the fair ringlets) before a crowd of admirers.
"Isn't it lovely for her to be May Queen?" said Bettine.
"She's a rotten one," said William. "I'm jolly glad I've not to hold up her rotten ole train an' listen to her narsy squeaky voice singin' close to, an' I'll give you a present to-morrow."
He did. He found a centipede in the garden and pressed it into her hand on the way to school.
"They're jolly int'restin'," he said. "Put it in a match-box and make holes for its breath and it'll live ever so long. It won't bite you if you hold it the right way."
And because she loved William she took it without even a shudder.
Evangeline Fish began to pursue William. She grudged him bitterly to Bettine. She pirouetted near him in her sky-blue garments, she tossed her ringlets about him. She ogled him with her pale blue eyes.
And in the long school hours during which he dreamed at his desk, or played games with his friends, while highly-paid instructors poured forth their wisdom for his benefit, William evolved a plan. Unfortunately, like most plans, it required capital, and William had no capital. Occasionally William's elder brother Robert would supply a few shillings without inconvenient questions, but it happened that Robert was ignoring William's existence at that time. For Robert had (not for the first time) discovered his Ideal, and the Ideal had been asked to lunch the previous week. For days before Robert had made William's life miserable. He had objected to William's unbrushed hair and unmanicured hands, and untidy person, and noisy habits. He had bitterly demanded what She would think on being asked to a house where she might meet such an individual as William; he had insisted that William should be taught habits of cleanliness and silence before She came; he had hinted darkly that a man who had William for a brother was hampered considerably in his love affairs because She would think it was a queer kind of family where anyone like William was allowed to grow up. He had reserved some of his fervour for the cook. She must have a proper lunch—not stews and stuff they often had—there must be three vegetables and there must be cheese straws. Cook must learn to make better cheese straws. And William, having swallowed insults for three whole days, planned vengeance. It was a vengeance which only William could have planned or carried out. For only William could have seized a moment just before lunch when the meal was dished up and cook happened to be out of the kitchen to carry the principal dishes down to the coal cellar and conceal them beneath the best nuts.
It is well to draw a veil over the next half-hour. Both William and the meal had vanished. Robert tore his hair and appealed vainly to the heavens. He hinted darkly at suicide. For what is cold tongue and coffee to offer to an Ideal? The meal was discovered during the afternoon in its resting-place and given to William's mongrel, Jumble, who crept about during the next few days in agonies of indigestion. Robert had bitterly demanded of William why he went about the world spoiling people's lives and ruining their happiness. He had implied that when William met with the One and Only Love of his Life he need look for no help or assistance from him (Robert), because he (William) had dashed to the ground his (Robert's) cup of happiness, because he'd never in his life met anyone before like Miss Laing, and never would again, and he (William) had simply condemned him to a lonely and miserable old age, because who'd want to marry anyone that asked them to lunch and then gave them coffee and cold tongue, and he'd never want to marry anyone else, because it was the One and Only Love of his Life, and he hoped he (William) would realise, when he was old enough to realise, what it meant to have your life spoilt and your happiness ruined all through coffee and tongue, because someone you'd never speak to again had hidden the lunch. Whence it came that William, optimist though he was, felt that any appeal to Robert for funds would be inopportune, to say the least of it.
But Providence was on William's side for once. An old uncle came to tea and gave William five shillings.
"Going to dance at a Maypole, I hear?" he chuckled.
"P'raps," was all William said.
His family were relieved by his meekness with regard to the May Day festival. Sometimes William made such a foolish fuss about being dressed up and performing in public.
"You know, dear," said his mother, "it's a dear old festival, and quite an honour to take part in it, and a smock is quite a nice manly garment."
"Yes, Mother," said William.
The day was fine—a real May Day. The Maypole was fixed up in the field near the school, and the little performers were to change in the schoolroom.
William went out with his brown paper parcel of stage properties under his arm and stood gazing up the road by which Evangeline Fish must come to the school. For Evangeline Fish would have to pass his gate. Soon he saw her, her pale blue radiant in the sun.
"'Ullo!" he greeted her.
She simpered. She had won him at last.
"Waitin' to walk to the school with me, William?" she said.
He still loitered.
"You're awful early."
"Am I? I thought I was late. I meant to be late. I don't want to be too early. I'm the most 'portant person, and I want to walk in after the others, then they'll all look at me."
She tossed her tightly-wrought curls.
"Come into our ole shed a minute," said William. "I've got a present for you."
She blushed and ogled.
"Oh, William!" she said, and followed him into the wood-shed.
"Look!" he said.
His uncle's five shillings had been well expended. Rows of cakes lay round the shed, pastries, and sugar cakes, and iced cakes, and currant cakes.
"Have a lot," said William. "They're all for you. Go on! Eat 'em all. You can eat an' eat an' eat. There's lots an' lots of time and they can't begin without you, can they?"
"Oh, William!" she said.
She gloated over them.
"Oh, may I?"
"There's heaps of time," said William. "Go on! Eat them all!"
Her greedy little eyes seemed to stand out of her head.
"Oo!" she said in rapture.
She sat down on the floor and began to eat, lost to everything but icing and currants and pastry. William made for the door, then he paused, gazed wistfully at the feast, stepped back, and, grabbing a cream bun in each hand, crept quietly away.
Bettine in her print frock was at the door of the school.
"Hurry up!" she said anxiously. "You're going to be late. The others are all out. They're waiting to begin. Miss Dewhurst's out there. They're all come but you an' the Queen. I stayed 'cause you asked me to stay to help you."
He came in and shut the door.
"You're goin' to be May Queen," he announced firmly.
"Me?" she said in amazement.
"Yes. An' I'm goin' to be King."
He unwrapped his parcel.
"Look!" he said.
He had ransacked his sister's bedroom. Once Ethel had been to a fancy dress dance as a Fairy. Over Bettine's print frock he drew a crumpled gauze slip with wings, torn in several places. On her brow he placed a tinsel crown at a rakish angle. And she quivered with happiness.
"Oh, how lovely!" she said. "How lovely! How lovely!"
His own preparations were simpler. He tied a red sash that he had taken off his sister's hat over his right shoulder and under his left arm on the top of his smock. Someone had once given him a small 'bus conductor's cap with a toy set of tickets and clippers. He placed the cap upon his head with its peak over one eye. It was the only official headgear he had been able to procure. Then he took a piece of burnt cork from his parcel and solemnly drew a fierce and military moustache upon his cheek and lip. To William no kind of theatricals was complete without a corked moustache.
Then he took Bettine by the hand and led her out to the Maypole.
The dancers were all waiting holding the ribbons. The audience was assembled and a murmur of conversation was rising from it. It ceased abruptly as William and Bettine appeared. William's father, mother and sister were in the front row. Robert was not there. Robert had declined to come to anything in which that little wretch was to perform. He'd jolly well had enough of that little wretch to last his lifetime, thank you very much.
William and Bettine stepped solemnly hand in hand upon the little platform which had been provided for the May Queen.
Miss Dewhurst, who was chatting amicably to the parents till the last of her small performers should appear, seemed suddenly turned to stone, with mouth gaping and eyes wide. The old fiddler, who was rather short-sighted, struck up the strains, and the dancers began to dance. The audience relaxed, leaning back in their chairs to enjoy the scene. Miss Dewhurst was still frozen. There were murmured comments. "How curious to have that boy there! A sort of attendant, I suppose."
"Yes, perhaps he's something allegorical. A sort of pageant. Good Luck or something. It's not quite the sort of thing I expected, I must admit."
"What do you think of the Queen's dress? I always thought Miss Dewhurst had better taste. Rather tawdry, I call it."
"I think the moustache is a mistake. It gives quite a common look to the whole thing. I wonder who he's meant to be? Pan, do you think?" uncertainly.
"Oh, no, nothing so pagan, I hope," said an elderly matron, horrified. "He's that Brown boy, you know. There always seems to be something queer about anything he's in. I've noticed it often. But I hope he's meant to be something more Christian than Pan, though one never knows in these days," she added darkly.
William's sister had recognised her possessions, and was gasping in anger.
William's father, who knew William, was smiling sardonically.
William's mother was smiling proudly.
"You're always running down William," she said to the world in general, "but look at him now. He's got a very important part, and he said nothing about it at home. I call it very nice and modest of him. And what a dear little girl."
Bettine, standing on the platform with William's hand holding hers and the Maypole dancers dancing round her, was radiant with pride and happiness.
And Evangeline Fish in the wood-shed was just beginning the last currant cake.